Heart Breaking News

How Trauma-Informed Journalism Can Help Us Navigate These Times

Yellow flowers arranged on the grass in the shape of a heart

We live in times of breaking news that breaks the heart, when that which breaks is not just world events, but us, living and navigating a painful world.

As we near the year’s anniversary of the declaration of a global pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about what, exactly, has changed in the past year, including in the world of journalism. One thing I started noticing last year when listening to the NPR is the number of times the radio station openly references anxiety and calm in their broadcasts and tries to help soothe listeners as much as inform them.

Last year, for instance, NPR Music released Isle Of Calm: Stream 6 Hours Of Soothing Music. “These are anxious times,” they wrote, “and many of the comforts, routines and distractions that make daily life easier — sports, church services, musical theater, late-night social gatherings, you name it — are being scaled back or canceled due to fears about the spread of coronavirus.” By October, there were guided meditations.

NPR was not, alone, of course. In April of last year, The Atlantic started a column on happiness and finding a sense of purpose, quoting novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s observation that “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” In June, shortly after shelter-in-place orders were lifted in California, the Los Angeles Times kicked off a newsletter for exploring the outdoors. As Assistant Travel Editor Mary Forgione noted, “Right now, I think readers are looking to us for things they can do close to home or maybe a little farther afield. And that’s what The Wild is all about: Bringing you closer to nature and the outdoors.”

As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton noted, “Who would buy a product that reliably makes them sad, or anxious, or worried, or overwhelmed?” And yet that’s what so much of the news is about, citing a paper by Matthew Feinberg, Brett Q. Ford, Sabrina Thai, Arasteh Gatchpazian, and Bethany Lassetter, who argue that politics is a chronic stressor, and “daily political events consistently evoked negative emotions, which corresponded to worse psychological and physical well-being.”

The upside, they point out, is that politics can spur people to action. But at what psychological cost? And what tools do we have to help navigate the difficult times we live in? According to The Independent, downloads of mindfulness meditation apps — already a trend — , jumped 25% last year. TechCrunch observed that eight of the top 10 meditation apps grew their downloads around March of last year, too.

And what of journalists, who have to report on these chronic stressors, day in, day out? Having worked for years with journalists who’ve reported on issues like gender-based violence, political repression, conflict zones and hate, I’ve long seen the effects of such stressors in journalists’ day-to-day lives, ranging from trauma to moral injury. This latter deserves mention because it’s not quite trauma but still has long term effects.

As researchers Anthony Feinstein and Hannah Storm pointed out in their 2017 report on reporting on the refugee crisis, moral injury is “the injury done to a person’s conscience or moral compass by perpetrating, witnessing, or failing to prevent acts that transgress personal moral and ethical values or codes of conduct. While moral injury is not considered a mental illness, unlike PTSD and depression, it can be the source of considerable emotional upset.”

“Journalists are currently bearing witness to individual and collective grief at high levels,” said Dr. Elana Newman, research director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, in an article for the American Psychological Association. This hurt — from moral injury to trauma — can naturally extend to readers.

USA Today editor Anna Godlasky:

Traumatic events are inherently newsworthy and journalists can’t make newsmakers good, the world peaceful, or the public happy. But could we cover traumas, large and small, better? Can people remain informed citizens without feeling vicariously traumatized or experiencing compassion fatigue? I don’t know the “how” yet, but the answers must be yes. If people feel they must choose between consuming news and their own well-being, they will choose the latter.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director at the Dart Center, has pointed out that trauma-informed journalism requires attentiveness to the effects of trauma on readers, journalists and interviewees: “I think it’s been a kind of revolutionary change not only in how we tell stories but whose stories get told … When we talk about trauma, we’re talking about elevating experiences that so often have been either suppressed or censored or the subjects of shame. That’s an enormous change in the news agenda.”

In early November, as the world awaited the results of the US presidential elections, I wrote about uncertainty, because I was watching how uncertainty about the results magnified the anxiety for so many around me:

I want to move past the practicalities of information communications right now and into the realm of meditation, a skill I think runs counter to the demands of an attention economy, where every second must be filled with content. But it’s a skill that’s needed if we’re to survive the contemporary information environment intact as a society.

And after the events in the US Capitol, I wrote on heartbreak and how my own practice in meditation has taught me to navigate suffering. As I wrote, quoting Rabbi Steve Leder of More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us, “these times are meant to remind us to be kind, to be decent, to forgive.”

In a time of acceleration of news and the acceleration of heartbreak and suffering, the future of journalism might exist beyond the screen and rest in the meditation cushion. We as a society must learn to navigate balancing the need to be informed with the need to be trauma-informed. I do think studying the roots of happiness and calm are essential if we’re ever to achieve that balance. Exhaustion and news avoidance, as many scholars of authoritarianism remind us, are part of the path toward breakdowns in societal equity, because it then becomes that much harder to rally for change.

The good news — and yes, it’s good news — is that suffering and trauma are not new, but newly contextualized. That means we have a lot of people to learn from (arguably, the entirety of human philosophy and theology). Part of what’s been essential for me this past year is what’s been essential to me over many years: meditation, spending time in nature, studying how deep peace and happiness can be found, and finding and supporting a community.

This post is an excerpt from Yellow Canary Land 🐤 , a monthly look at the future of global media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come. Don’t expect a lot of emails, but do expect a lot of thought put into each one

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan. opinions my own.

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